A British Christmas

This may seem ill-timed, as it’s the time of year when people bitterly insist it’s too early to think about Christmas, but:

  • It may involve making plane & hotel reservations, and you’ll save money by doing this in advance 
  • It doesn’t really have a whole lot to do with Christmas

Photo: Michael Eric Berube GoodPhotos.com

The Christmas Bride, a romantic musical I wrote with MK Wolfe some years ago, will get its third production, this time in Portland, Maine December 15-21 at Lucid Stage. I endeavored mightily to create a new orchestration for this mounting, and the new cast features David Bachrach, a member of the original New York cast, in a different role. Unlike the last production, in Pennsylvania, Al D’Andrea, who was so instrumental to the show’s creation as the first director, will stage the New England premiere.

The show was my sixth musical to be produced over a prodigious seven-year period. Then, as now, I had an unshakable desire to have every new project be as different as possible from my previous works. So, for me, The Christmas Bride was the opportunity to exercise my romantic muscle, to write a passionate and unironic love story. MK Wolfe fashioned a story that contrasted various kinds of love that exist in life:

  • There’s the love one feels for one’s family, and growing up involves leaving the nest at some point.
  • There’s the sort of love one associates with duty, the devotion you give to someone because you’re supposed to.
  • There’s the love that takes such a hold of you, suddenly you’re willing to break all the rules, and those other kinds of love seem pretty pallid by comparison.

The departure point for our tale was a novella by Charles Dickens, The Battle of Life. But the beats of the plot are truly an MK Wolfe creation. Nineteenth century England proved an inspirational setting, because it’s far enough from our mundane world for passionate declarations and actions to feel natural, yet close enough to express things that romantically-minded people feel today. Before this collaboration, I’d run into various problems with librettists: nothing untoward; they just weren’t frequently providing me with what I needed to do my best work. MK Wolfe’s understanding of drama meant that the script built to a large number of conflict points where characters could burst into song since the emotions were too fraught for mere words to do. So, at last, I was provided with the meaty material on which interesting and involving songs can be based.

Here are two examples, and I hope they neither pin too many laurels on myself nor give away too much of the plot:

In the first act, the leading man is in the office of his two lawyers. They have news for him and he has news for them. The former is the seriousness of his gambling debts: he’s pursued by a Javert-like policeman and must flee the country to buy time to repair his estate. The latter is that he’s proposed marriage to a country lass with little dowry whose family is also among the law firm’s clients. The situation reminded me of an obscure musical theatre song I barely knew, To Look Upon My Love, from Kean.

click to hear “To Look Upon My Love”

What I like about the song is that it plays the romanticism of the Alfred Drake character off against the mundane and comic considerations of the financial advisor. For The Christmas Bride, then, I felt I might be able to give the leading man moments of lyrical and perhaps overblown ardor. The audience would accept them, and feel they’re real, because they’d simultaneously hear funny and fastidious concerns with finance. The Kean song, though, ends with the fiscal subject winning out over the song of love, and the music plays a disappointingly trite tag. In talking over the scene with Wolfe and director D’Andrea, we came up with a bigger, almost cinematic idea, involving the other man in the romantic triangle singing with his peculiar sort of devotion. We could comically contrast the way the two men see the heroine, and end with the love outlasting the monetary mundanity. More satisfying for the audience, I think, and it built to enthusiastic applause.

click to hear “Marion”

In the second act, the script gave me the opportunity to build a production number around the idea that someone who is addicted to gambling might be distracted from his main objective by the siren’s call of a casino table. A little research led to the happy discovery that roulette was the newest hot item on the London gambling scene in the 1800’s, which led me to a neat phrase, “the revolution of roulette.” So, our hero feels two gravitational pulls – the love he feels for the heroine, and the macho challenge laid down by his old cronies, degenerate gamblers. The audience, I hope, foresees the inevitable tragic turn but it should be one of those classical theatrical moments when you’re dying to run up on stage and slap some sense into the character. The tension set up by Wolfe’s libretto is filled with elements, both comic and dramatic, that I explored and amplified with my music. The whirl of the wheel (which the orchestration gives to a cello doing sixteenth note figures) also plays as the “ticking clock” one finds in film thrillers.

I wonder if I’ve said too much. Discussing The Christmas Bride, what it does, or what I hope it does, is one thing. Seeing it is another. I can provide a couple of demo recordings, but, as this is a work of musical theatre, with songs intricately connected to plot, character and dialogue, you really have to see it to get it. And so I urge you to set sail for Portland and take in a performance of this stirring musical romance, and find out what the hell I’m talking about.

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